Autumn leaves rustle as Lionel Godmet walks past rows of graves at the Jewish cemetery in Jungholtz in eastern France, their bases fringed with moss but the Hebrew inscriptions clearly visible.
Pinned to his lapel is a badge reading “veilleur de la mémoire”, or guardian of memory.
The cemetery’s existence is a tribute to a community battered by centuries of history, and all but destroyed by the Holocaust.
But Godmet himself is not Jewish. He is one of a growing number of individuals in France’s Alsace region who have taken it upon themselves to patrol Jewish cemeteries after a spate of attacks on such sites that have horrified the country.
Godmet describes his volunteer work as a “civic commitment” and likens it to that of watchmen who stand guard over the region’s celebrated hilltop castles.
“It is our heritage and our history,” he said.
Such work has become all the more urgent after the latest attacks on cemeteries in the Alsace region.
Early this month, 107 graves were defaced with swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti at the cemetery in Westhoffen.
That attack came after 96 tombs were desecrated at a cemetery in Quatzenheim, also in Alsace, in February.
Godmet, a religion teacher, is now one of 20 “guardians of memory”, a network set up by the regional council in October, informing the authorities of any problems at the cemeteries or their surroundings.
Alsace has 67 Jewish cemeteries, a high number explained by the presence in the past of many rural Jewish communities spread across the region. Now, most of these communities have ceased to exist, making protecting the cemeteries all the more difficult.
“Today, there are fewer than 20,000 Jews in Alsace of a total of two million people. And since the Holocaust there are no longer any Jews in the countryside,” said Philippe Ichter, who heads a commission promoting religious dialogue in the region, and who initiated the project to guard the cemeteries.
“We pay more attention than we did before,” said Robert Tornare. He and his wife began keeping watch over the cemetery in Wintzenheim, which their house overlooks, some 40 years ago.
“We are Catholics, but after 40 years they have become our friends,” he said, saying his wife had Jewish playmates when she was a schoolgirl and that years later they suggested she keep a key to the cemetery.
Back in Jungholtz, Godmet admits it is tough to mobilise young people for such work. However, last February after the Quatzenheim attack, his students took part in an exercise at the local cemetery, observing the Jewish custom of placing stones on graves as a visitor’s homage.
“The students don’t know so much about Judaism even though many live close to the cemetery,” he said. “There’s lots of ignorance, but it’s the same for Islam.”